Transmissions: What's in a name?
by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
While not the first and certainly not the only one, Facebook has become a giant in the era of social networking. In only 10 years since its founding, the website boasted $7.87 billion in revenue last year, and 1.28 billion monthly active users.
Facebook has not been without controversy. From its creation – dramatized in the film The Social Network – to today, the site has had its critics and contention. In recent years the site has courted controversy over privacy issues and over recent revelations over deliberate manipulation of users' feeds to elicit emotional reactions.
In Berlin in 2011, Douglas Rushkoff said, "We are not the customers of Facebook, we are the product. Facebook is selling us to advertisers." With that in mind, everything you write on Facebook, every photo you post, every "like" you click is data for Facebook's advertisers. If there is one thing they need, therefore, it is clear and accurate data.
Every so often, Facebook has sought to purge its site of false accounts with claims of clearing out "bots" – or automated software – and cyberbullies. Yet when it does so, it ends up also culling the site from real people who follow Facebook's rules, but may otherwise opt to use a name different from that on their birth certificate, driver's license, or other official identification.
In the last month, Facebook has been even more draconian in enforcing this policy toward "real" names than in the past. Its most recent campaign has ended up netting a number of transgender individuals and drag queens, as well as others who may use a pseudonym for gaming, for personal safety, because of their celebrity, or any number of other reasons.
Sister Roma, of the drag nun group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, has taken to Facebook to protest the name policy. She was locked out of her account until she provided her "legal name, like the one that appears on your driver's license or credit card." She did give in and provided her legal name, Michael Williams, because the connections she had outweighed the need to protect her name. Even then, postings she has put up that are critical of the policy have been pulled from Facebook, declared to be abusive or spam.
Sister Roma's experience is not an outlier, with many others being forced from the site as Facebook claims it is somehow keeping its online community "safe" by doing this.
Over this last year there have been plenty of painful arguments between the drag and transgender communities, but I think we have ample room to agree here. We should all feel welcome to present ourselves as we choose to, and not be forced into an identity that is not ours.
There are a number of reasons to opt for a pseudonym. You may need to separate yourself from a birth name to avoid stalkers and others who may seek to do you harm. You might have such to protect your "regular" identity from employers or others, using a pseudonym to be in contact with the transgender or larger queer community. You may also use it as a form of exploration, opting for a name different from the gender you were assigned at birth in order to consider your gender identity.
While I have been using the name on my byline for longer than Facebook existed, I recall how important it was to be able to start to claim that name in virtual spaces before I was ready and willing to do the same in my day-to-day life. The ability to adopt this identity was pivotal in allowing me to understand my own space as a transgender woman, and helped me prepare for facing the world at large.
Mine is not a "stage name," but as much a part of my identity as anyone else's preferred name. It may not have always been there, but it is what adorns my driver's license and plenty of other official paperwork.
But so what if it was a stage name?
If I go to Facebook looking for the official, verified page for Whoopi Goldberg, I need only type facebook.com/whoopigoldberg. No one seems to be demanding her page be closed down because it does not read Caryn Johnson, her birth name. Former wrestling superstar Hulk Hogan is not forced to be Terry Jean Bollette, his real name. No one is telling Portia De Rossi to present her birth certificate, which declares her to be Amanda Lee Rogers. Each of these celebrities, and many more, has no issue with their preferred name on Facebook.
Sister Roma and others may not be the same sort of household names as Goldberg or Hogan, even though she is much more likely to be mentioned in my household. Nevertheless, her name is as seemingly valid as any of these celebrities.
Facebook has had a real names policy since the get-go: its desire for data demands it. It has also told people that they can – like the aforementioned celebrities – have a "fan page" to host their pseudonym. And maybe that is an option for many with drag personas, but it is not so much an option for those with other, legitimate needs for pseudonymous identities in the world at large – including many transgender people.
Some have accused Facebook of being homophobic or transphobic by targeting Sister Roma and others like BeBe Sweetbriar, another well-known local drag entertainer. Many have also postulated that a third party has targeted queer and transgender people, turning Facebook's policies against the LGBT community. I don't know if this is true, or if Facebook was just doing a random sweep of names. So far, the company has not issued any comment. I have heard about people both in and outside the trans and drag communities being targeted, so this could simply be Facebook being Facebook, and nothing specifically aiming at our community.
Whether intentional or not, however, we are being hurt by this. Much like Google-Plus – which recently dropped its "wallet name" policy – I join with others in calling for Facebook to change. I may only be a data point to them, but perhaps if enough of their data points speak out, their real customers will take notice – and perhaps change may happen.
Gwen Smith does not wish to be called late for dinner. You'll find her at www.gwensmith.com.